Thursday, July 24, 2008

Music Review: Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Lie Down In the Light

Lie Down In the Light is in many ways an atypical Will Oldham record. For the most part, the themes most often associated with his albums (death, fractured relationships and lives on the skids, a touch of dread, and a little more death) are now tempered with a tranquility and contentment rarely seen on any of Oldham’s previous releases. He’s gone a little domestic. Sure it’s not as obvious as say, New Morning or Planet Waves, but long time listeners will certainly notice this shift.

Several of the songs on Light evoke a genuine peace and optimism that might come as a shock for those who like their Oldham gothic and doomed a la I See A Darkness. Opening track “Easy Does It” starts with a breezy country rhythm and then works in piano, fiddle, and backwoods geetar as Oldham (again releasing an album under his Bonnie "Prince" Billy handle) sings joyfully about “good earthly music.” It’s about family and friends, and simple pleasures; it sets the tone for the next several songs as well.

Second track “You Remind Me of Something (The Glory Goes)” continues this heavily country sound as it evokes a happy family scene that could very easily be from a past era (you know, the era where Uncle Jethro had no real teeth left and played his banjo on the front porch of his Appalachian shack). “I like the places where the night does not mean an end/where smiles break free and surprise is your friend/and dancing goes on in the kitchen until dawn” Oldham sings with a sincerity and lack of lyrical ambiguity that dotted previous albums. Similarly, “(Keep Eye On) Other’s Gain” builds from a simple guitar accompaniment and stresses the importance of family (just like your mother also said): “keep your loved ones near/and let them know just where you’ll be/because others need you right nearby/just as you need me.”

Nevertheless, several of the songs deal in the woe, despair, and dark humor that bring either a smile to or induce morose depression in Oldham’s fans. “You Want That Picture,” sung as a duet with Ashley Webber (who lends excellent backing vocals throughout much of the album), depicts a faltering mess of a relationship, with both characters lobbing accusations and finding a decidedly morbid silver lining: “I went outside/and I stood very still in the night/and I looked at the sky/and knew someday I’d die/and then everything would be alright.”

“Missing One” immediately follows and finds the relationship now over. Again backed by sparse guitar, Oldham’s newly single man admits that “missing you has only just begun.” The conflicting emotions and muted resolutions that characterize Oldham’s best songs again creep in here, with the male character saying “I wouldn’t trade my life for someone’s millions/and I know you left for a reason.” What that reason is Oldham isn’t saying.

The trio of woe concludes with “What’s Missing Is.” With some subdued instrumental flourishes that compliment the guitar, and featuring Webber singing backing vocals that meld very well with Oldham’s voice, it’s perhaps the darkest song on the album. The mournful instrumental break adds to the overall tone of despair in the song.

Produced by Lambchop’s Mark Nevers, Light’s sound relies heavily on country music elements. Although these elements have been implied in Oldham’s previous works, it’s brought to the forefront this time around. The result is an album whose production is warm and balanced; it also sounds great on both headphones and stereo. Even though Lie Down In the Light is not entirely a hopeful album, it doesn’t cozy up to abject bleakness like an old friend the same way Oldham’s previous albums have.

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